By Carey Restino
The Homer City Council came under fire this week when local business owners filled the chambers to tell council members and city staff that changes to the city’s water and sewer rates would hurt the town’s small businesses dramatically.
But the city council largely stuck to its guns, saying the new rate model would make who pays what for water and sewer more fair. While the council postponed action on the water and sewer rates until the Aug. 12 meeting, and made some minor adjustments in the rate model, the majority of council members spoke in favor of the new rates as proposed. If small business owners see their bills going up, it’s because they were given an unfair advantage in the past, they said.
Larry Slone, who submitted an 11th-hour proposal to modify the city water and sewer rate structure by simplifying some aspects, compared the rate schedule to a game of musical chairs. With a fixed total cost, the debate is simply over who pays what portion.
“If you think this proposal is going to increase your costs, that’s because someone else was paying for yours,” Slone argued.
But business owners testified against the rate reworking, saying they had formed a group called “Homer Voice for Business” in response to what they said was a deaf ear toward small business from the city staff and council. Some testified that the new rate structure would unfairly raise their costs to the point where they might be forced to change certain aspects of their business, such as doing laundry outside the city. They called the city council’s actions unfriendly to business, and said Homer’s water and sewer rates were significantly higher than many other municipalities in Alaska.
“If the city creates such an oppressive water rate, don’t underestimate the creativity of the local business people to get around that,” said Marilyn Heuper. “But we want to support the city — we live in the city — so please don’t make us do that.”
Councilman Beauregard Burgess, who drew fire for challenging the continued pressure from Land’s End Resort to scrap the rate restructuring, said the cost of Homer’s system is higher because it is high quality. Burgess, who sat on the city’s committee formed to examine the water and sewer rates, said the new rate model is fair.
“A gallon of water is a gallon of water and a gallon of poo is a gallon of poo,” he said.
Councilman Bryan Zak was the sole voice solidly against the proposed water and sewer rates. Zak questioned the administrative costs related to the water and sewer system, and said many city businesses estimate their water and sewer bills will go up tens of thousands of dollars.
“That is not a small increase,” he said, adding that he favored scrapping the current plan and starting afresh.
Adrianne Sweeney, innkeeper at the Driftwood Inn, said she saw her water and sewer rates go up nearly 100 percent in past years and the currently proposed rate restructuring would further increase that cost.
“I was shocked,” Sweeney said. “You can imagine why a lot of us are running scared. Most folks think that small businesses have deep pockets and tons of money, but most of us work around the clock and don’t collect a paycheck.”
Sweeney and others who testified suggested the city look for ways it can reduce its water and sewer costs. Others suggested the council consider using other pools of money to offset the increased expenses.
“This will hurt small business, these kind of rate increases less than five years apart,” she said. “We’ll have to make cuts and that will mean less jobs, closing in the winter, those sorts of things.”
In the end, the council amended the rate structure slightly, removing several small fees designed mainly to track the use of certain features such as water sprinklers in the city, and adjusted the estimated volume being used to calculate sewer fees for residents who do not have water service, which includes service to Kachemak City.
City resident Charles Davis testified at the end of the meeting that the council needs to fix its water and sewer rates once and for all.
“When I attended my first council meeting in 1978, they were discussing water and sewer,” he said. “This is an ongoing thing that somebody’s going to have to fix.”
The council will take up the water and sewer rate structure again with a public hearing and consideration on Aug. 12.
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